Once again, the Amanda Knox case is back in the news. The Italian Supreme Court overturned an appellate court decision acquitting Amanda and Raffeale Sollecito and further proceedings will go forward at the leisurely pace we have experienced so far. The story of a crime committed in Perugia in 2007 will continue to reverberate until the case is finally resolved – which in unlikely to be before 2016.
As I review information about this case, I am beginning to get that nasty feeling that something may be rotten and it’s not in the State of Denmark. Before going further, let me say that I do not intend to get into the question of guilt or innocence. Nor do I have anything against Italy or Italians – I have frequently travelled there and have been treated wonderfully. The Italian people are imaginative, creative, industrious and generous.
The Italian government is another story. I did a little digging and was surprised at what I found. The Economist ranks Italy as a "flawed democracy" with a very low rating for "functioning of government" (behind Mexico, Turkey and most former Iron Curtain countries). Freedom House gives Italy a "partly free" rating (the same level as Egypt, Libya, and Serbia) for freedom of the press and Italy’s score has been declining in recent years so I hope it doesn’t slip down into the Iran/North Korea level before the case is resolved. Reporters Without Borders also rates it low (on a level with Venezuela and a number of Middle Eastern countries) for freedom of the press. Transparency International rates Italy 72nd in the World (behind Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan) on its corruption perceptions index. Finally, Nation Master ranked Italy 16th out of 17 countries on public belief in police efficiency and also on the percentage of the public (40%) who feel that they can report crimes to the police. I wonder what the other 60% do when someone breaks into their homes.
It is with the jaundiced eye justified by these troublesome statistics that we should review some nettlesome issues in the case.
1. The "Confessions" A key issue in the case revolves around statements (not really confessions) made by the defendants during police interrogation. The Perugia police have equipment available for videotaping interrogations but did not use it because (they say) tthey had budgetary constraints. Amanda signed a statement in Italian alleging that while she was at the cottage Partick Lumumba (whose height she described in centimeters) had attacked the victim, Meredith Kercher. She retracted the statement two days later and claimed it was made under coercive circumstances. The police claim it was purely voluntary and have brought litigation against her and others for alleging coercion.
Wow!! I couldn’t describe my own height in centimeters and I really can’t imagine an American who had just arrived in Europe developing such quick facility with the metric system. She needed a translator during the interrogation but the statement she signed was in Italian; so what she really agreed to sign is what the translator told her was in the statement. More importantly, regardless of whether she is guilty or innocent, it didn’t make any sense to accuse Lumumba. She had no way of knowing whether he had an alibi (it turned out that he did) and, if guilty, she would have known that he wasn’t there. What could this possibly accomplish? But it appears that the police had decided Lumumba was involved and so her statement looks and feels very much like the product of force feeding by the police.
People have been arguing about this for more than 5 years. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could look at a videotape or listen to an audiotape rather than speculate about what happened? The budgetary excuse for failing to record what the police must have know as an absolutely critical interrogation is not credible. They spent a fortune wiretapping virtually anyone remotely connected to the case and also a tidy sum producing an animated video of how they allege the crime took place. Could it be that the reason that they didn’t videotape the interrogation is that a tape would reveal coercion and improper police behavior? I am not going to answer that question, but I am beginning to understand why 60% of Italians are not comfortable reporting crimes to the police.
2. Patrick Lumumba Shortly after the above Knox statement, the police and prosecutor trimuphantly arrested Knox, Sollecito and Lumumba and announced "case closed" with much celebratory public fanfare. The evidence against Lumumba consisted of the Knox statement that she was there and "some other dude did it" – a pattern of evidence which recurs in this case (and in many others). Competent investigators would not take this allegation at face value but would investigate further to determine whether the "other dude" had an alibi or was tied to the crime by forensic evidence. Not so here. Lumumba was immediately picked up and imprisoned. Two days later Amanda retracted her statement leaving the police with absolutely no evidence of any kind against Lumumba but they continued to hold him for a considerable time thereafter. Finally, when a witness providing Lumumba with an airtight alibi came forward, they started the process necessary for his release.
I don’t care what you think about Amanda Knox or her guilt. The treatment of Lumumba was an outrage. He was arrested and imprisoned on the basis of very, very flimsy evidence and he was held when even that evidence disintegrated. At a minimum, before being arrested, he should have been given the opportunity to present an alibi. I started out wondering why 60% of Italians feel that they can’t talk to the police; now I am beginning to wonder why 40% of Italians feel that they can.
3. The Hard Drives The victim and the two defendants in this case were students who spend a lot of their lives on the computer. Their hard drives might have provided insight into possible motive (or lack thereof), comings and goings, and all kinds of things which would give a trier of fact more insight in determining guilt or innocence. The police correctly picked up the relevant computers but then they – you guessed it! – erased the hard drives, allegedly by mistake. I could understand erasing one computer hard drive but here there were multiple hard drives that were erased. After erasing the first one, most people surmise that a different procedure should be followed with the others. To make matters worse, at the trial the defense offered to have the hard drives sent to the manufacturer for an attempt at data recovery, but the prosecution refused. I never want to think the worst about anyone but it is really hard to put a lipstick on this particular pig.
4. The HIV Test Once Amanda got settled down in prison for her confinement while the case moved forward at the speed of a Sloth with rheumatoid arthritis, she was tested for HIV and told the test was positive. On the heels of being imprisoned on homicide charges, this must have been a highly traumatic event. She was asked for a list of men with whom she had been intimate and complied. A few days later, she was told that the test was a false positive. Although it is not completely clear, it appears likely that the list was leaked to press giving rise to the image of Amanda Knox as a promiscuous or "foxy" young woman.
Now, I will admit that false positives can occur and if this were the only thing that emitting a foul odor about the case, I would tend to shrug it off as unfortunate. But aren’t we getting into a kind of never never land of unbelievable coincidence justifying what is more plausibly explained as official misconduct here?
5. The Scientific Lab As the case lurched forward, it became clear that forensic evidence would be important. A police lab in Rome produced all sorts of results which were used at the trial. As a lawyer, I know that the end results of tests can be evaluated only if the court and both sides have access to all evidence relevant to how the test were done, how the results were compiled and recorded and other matters. In this case, DNA data files were of critical importance. But the lab adamantly refused to turn them over. I am not certain whether, even now, they have ever been turned over in complete form. Again, one wonders why a scientist seeking the truth would do this. In the context of everything else that went wrong in the case, this refusal to provide data certainly raises eyebrows.
6. Rudy Guede Oddly enough, the forensic evidence pointed to a man not considered a suspect by the police. His name was Rudy Guede and he had fled the country. In a conversation with a friend which wa taped without his knowledge, he professed knowledge about the crime but said "Amanda was not involved." The police rushed to get him back to Italy (perhaps so that he would not be interrogated elsewhere) and ultmately he adopted an "I was there but some other dude did it" posture. He was tried separately from the other two. At the appeal in the Knox case, he was not thoroughly questioned about what happened, what he said and why he said it. Evidence turned up that he had been apprehended in Milan for unlawful entry before the homicide but was returned to Perugia at the request of the Perugia police. It would have been nice to get to the bottom of this but it was ruled that the effort to subpoena the Milan police was "too late" and so it was never explored. Hmmmm. On this one, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
There’s lots of other good stuff -1. Hekuran Kokomani (who testified he was near the crime scene at around the time the crime was committed but – guess what? – "some other dude did it") – of course he was never thoroughly investigated; 2, the fact that the key police official in the case has since been charged with abuse of office; 3. the fact that the prosecutor in the case was charged with abuse of office before the case commenced; 4. myriad cases brought against journalists covering the case.
The Italian authorities should move to dispel any possible implication of wrongdoing by releasing all relevant files and information, turning over all DNA data files and other lab information and data, allowing an independent investigation of why the interrogations were not taped and of the HIV test incident, investigating the Milan incident, and permitting an attempt to recover data from the computer hard drives. No further cases should be brought by the police or prosecutors against any journalist writing about case or against any author or publisher of any book about the case and any existing cases should be dropped. The last thing we need here is a suppression of the public debate about official behavior in this case.
Italy is a country with a great deal to be very proud of. If it moves forward on this matter consistent with sound principles of fairness, pursuit of the truth and integrity, it will increase confidence in its criminal justice system and maybe some of those ratings discussed above may begin to improve. In a sense, this case offers Italy a great opportunity to demonstrate the transparency and integrity of its legal process. As an admirer of Italy and its people, I strongly hope it takes that opportunity.